Eric Garber’s study creates a picturesque montage of Harlem gay life during this period when many African Americans tolerated, indulged in, and even celebrated homosexuality. Garber’s is a cinematic look at gay life, art, and culture that pauses here and there to capture the details of the night club scene, art work, personalities, and so on.
Painting Harlem as a gay liberated capital, Garber shows how homosexuality, among intellectuals especially, was accepted as a personal matter that did not interfere with the larger, more important work in racial and cultural advancement. Gays were oppressed during the period, but a thriving black gay subculture ensured that open secrets were kept.
Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, “Moms” Mabley, Mabel Hampton, Alberta Hunter, Gladys Bentley, and other lesbian or bisexual women found employment in show business, and many sang the blues about gay lives and loves.
Drag balls, commonplace during the period, were called “spectacles of color” by Langston Hughes in The Big Sea (1945); such balls were frequented often by the Harlem bohemians who wrote candidly about them in their correspondence.
Speakeasies and buffet flats (rental units notorious for cafeteria-style opportunities for a variety of sex) were spaces in which gays were granted generous liberation. Wallace Thurman, in Infants of the Spring (1932), gives a realistic rendering of the buffet flat that he, Langston Hughes, and Richard Bruce Nugent shared from time to time.
This artistic community was a complex one with an intricate network of members that cut across all sectors of the art world. At a time when New York still had laws banning homosexuality and when baths and gay bars were raided frequently, it is noteworthy that the Harlem Renaissance was moved along, in great measure, by gay men and women who led amazing double lives.
The Function of the Closet
The function of the closet during this period is complex. Although the closet has typically been seen as oppressive, many of these gay artists subverted the stultifying power of the closet by forming an artistic coalition grounded in secrecy and loyalty. Thus, the closet was reconstructed to form a protective shield against discrimination from publishers, patrons, and the media. The closet enabled many writers to blend into the mainstream and to publish without the fear of exposure.
The Influence of Alain Locke
Alain Locke (1886-1954), who has been credited with ushering in the New Negro movement, has been justly criticized for advancing the careers of young black males to the obvious neglect of such writers as Grimké, Dunbar-Nelson, and Georgia Douglas Johnson. Locke, a Harvard Ph.D. and professor at Howard University, promoted the careers of Wallace Thurman, Richard Bruce Nugent, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes.
To crown only Locke with the accolade of inspiring the Harlem Renaissance is to deny the seminal positions held by W. E. B. DuBois, Jessie Fauset, James Weldon Johnson, and the Opportunity and Crisis organizations in fostering the careers of many of the period’s artists.
Without question a misogynist, Locke’s contribution to the development of a gay male literary heritage was formidable and certainly deliberate. He was at the center of the Harlem gay coterie and very early on gave impetus to the careers of Cullen and, especially, Hughes.
Through frequent letters, Locke urged Countee Cullen (1903-1946) to write poetry aimed at bettering the race. Urging Cullen to read Edward Carpenter’s anthology of male-male friendship Ioläus, Locke helped the young writer find comfort in realizing his gay self. Thus, Locke was also, in part, responsible for Cullen’s maturing gay sensibilities.
Cullen learned the importance of the closet and wrote poetry that promoted the image and idea of the New Negro while also subtly expressing his gay self. Scholars are beginning to investigate the coded language in Cullen’s poetry in order to establish him as a leading figure in the black gay male literary heritage. Many of the lyrics in The Black Christ and Other Poems (1929) and The Medea and Some Poems (1935) lend themselves to gay readings.
Yet, in as early a work as Color (1925), Cullen wrote gay verses, such as “Tableau,” “Fruit of the Flower,” and “For a Poet”–a poem written at a time when Cullen was embroiled in unrequited love for Langston Hughes.
Before he had finished college at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and during his many travels, Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was pursued by Locke, with Cullen mediating. Although sexual relationships never materialized, the intimate friendships of these three gay men were concretized in their commitment to their literary careers and shared racial ideologies.
Although there were regular philosophical disagreements regarding the bewildering vocation of poets who were also deemed “race men,” still a tight bond developed that knit these writers together for their entire lives.
Hughes, arguably the most closeted of the renaissance gay males, had many close associations with homosexuals and lesbians throughout his life. And, as with Cullen, scholars are beginning to decipher the codification of his gayness in his poetry, drama, and fiction.
Commentators have cited many poems as candidates for gay readings, among them “Young Sailor,” “Waterfront Streets,” “Desire,” “Trumpet Player,” “Café 3 A. M.,” and the sequence of poems in Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951).
Angelina Weld Grimké
Angelina Weld Grimké (1880-1958) made her contribution to the lesbian literary heritage as a poet during the Harlem Renaissance. She was published in Locke’s The New Negro (1925) and in Cullen’s Caroling Dusk (1927). Grimké’s love lyrics, many as yet unpublished, are mostly addressed to women and describe love that is hidden, unrequited, or otherwise unrealized.
The honesty of the lesbian passion in these beautiful lyrics secures for Grimké a place in African-American gay literature. Poems such as “Rosalie,” “If,” “To Her of the Cruel Lips,” “El Beso,” “Autumn,” “Give Me Your Eyes,” “Caprichosa,” and “My Shrine” are all testimony to the unrealized lesbian love for which Grimké longed.
Alice Dunbar-Nelson (1875-1935) was married several times, most notably to the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. All of her marriages were troublesome for one reason or another, but despite her personal problems, she managed to write and publish fiction and poetry. The lesbian relationships that checkered her life had a significant influence on her creativity. For example, Gloria T. Hull suggests that, in the unpublished novel This Lofty Oak, Dunbar-Nelson chronicles the life of Edwina B. Kruse, one of her lovers.
Dunbar-Nelson’s literary reputation during the Harlem Renaissance is assessed largely (and Hull contends erroneously) on her achievement as a poet. She published “Violets” in Crisis in 1917, a work that exemplifies the polish and lucidity that typify her poetry, especially her sonnets.
Hull documents other lesbian affairs with Fay Jackson Robinson, a Los Angeles journalist, and Helene Ricks London, a Bermuda artist. Dunbar-Nelson wrote poetry for these women, most of which does not survive except in diary fragments. Dunbar-Nelson’s diary reveals her prominent place in an active network of African-American lesbians.
In Home to Harlem (1927), Jamaican-born Claude McKay (1899-1948) openly discusses Harlem’s black experience with lesbianism and even has a significant black gay male character. Following Wayne F. Cooper’s fine biography of McKay (which discusses honestly the writer’s homosexuality), scholars are beginning to make connections between the writer’s sexuality and his writing.
Yet, as is the case with many of the renaissance writers, McKay’s homosexuality as an influence on his creativity must be traced by reading between the lines. Some poems seem to be perfect candidates for such readings, among them “Bennie’s Departure,” “To Inspector W. E. Clark,” “Alfonso, Dressing to Wait at Table,” “The Barrier,” “Courage,” “Adolescence,” “Home Thoughts,” and “On Broadway.”
Other poems, such as “Desolate” and “Absence,” can easily be given gay readings, inasmuch as gays often write on the themes of isolation, dreams deferred, unrequited or secret love, and alienation.
The short life of Wallace Thurman (1902-1934) gave to the African-American gay and lesbian tradition two novels–The Blacker the Berry (1929) and Infants of the Spring (1932)–which are unmatched as clear and honest depictions of black gay and lesbian life.
Richard Bruce Nugent
The long life of Richard Bruce Nugent (1906-1989) produced very few literary monuments, but like Thurman, Nugent had a penchant for shocking readers and producing works with a decidedly foreign and provocative voice. Locke included Nugent’s gay story “Sahdji” in The New Negro and encouraged the young writer to work at narrative.
In 1926, the one and only issue of Fire!! (a quarterly “Devoted to the Younger Negro Artists”), carried Nugent’s more developed homosexual story “Smoke, Lilies, and Jade”–now praised as the first published African-American gay short story. The story is the fictionalization of an evening Nugent spent walking and talking with Langston Hughes.
The story is a major achievement in gay literary history because it can be read as a defense of homosexuality while it also poignantly thematizes male-male love as beautifully natural and wholesome.
Even in his later years, Nugent continued to write openly about the gay experience: In 1970, Crisis published a Christmas story, “Beyond Where the Star Stood Still,” in which Herod’s catamite offers a remarkable gift to the infant Jesus. Again, Nugent–embracing the mushrooming Gay Rights movement–aimed at forcing the safe African-American world, shaped largely by the fundamentalist church, to face the reality of a black gay presence.
Subverting the Mainstream Power Establishments
Although Harlem was awash with gay literary production during the renaissance, it would be overstating reality to say that there was a deliberate gay movement afoot. Homosexuality might have found toleration in the privacy of speakeasies and salon parties, but the boardrooms at major publishing companies were far less inviting.
Couple that fact with the conservatism that underlined the very notion of a “Talented Tenth,” and it is easy to conclude that any gay literary production (with the clear exception of Thurman and Nugent, who were severely criticized) would have to subvert, in rather creative ways, the mainstream white and black power establishments.
Recurring Themes, Issues, and Ideas
The recurring themes, issues, and ideas in the gay and lesbian writing of the period underscore the endurance of those writers who strove to express their gay selves.
A recurrent motif in the writings of the period is the presence of a forbidden, unnamed, and genderless love. Also common is the use of nature to express the budding forth of an unquestionable though unutterable beauty that is often unappreciated and wasted. Most writers stutter through expressions of a kind of passion so noble yet so unattainable that it must be enacted secretively or abandoned.
Because sexuality is inextricably wound up in the very experience of being human, it often shares turf with deep religious experience or political conviction. Cullen’s “The Black Christ,” for example, is on the surface a narrative poem of salvation. Yet the poet weaves the salvation experience neatly into the somewhat veiled story of Jim’s questionable sexuality.
The homoeroticism of the poem pictures the lynched black boy as a beauty of nature who is raped and sacrificed because he goes unappreciated. Ironically, he is falsely accused and killed for attempting to rape a beautiful white girl whom he understands as the embodiment of Spring. The poem, like many of the period, can be read on a deeper, less apparent level as a diatribe against sexual repression.
Perhaps the most prevalent theme among gay writers of the period is that of the unrealized or displaced dream. One cannot read Grimké, Hughes, McKay, or Cullen without confronting the unachievable, unnamed, and haunting dream.
From the most closeted to the most liberated, the writers of the gay Harlem Renaissance form an unquestionable tradition through which contemporary gay and lesbian readers can see the depth and range of experiences that, in many cases, mirror theirs. If these mirrored images have the power to transform and liberate, perhaps the new renaissance currently underway by African-American gay and lesbian writers will produce a literature that represents more realized and fulfilling dreams.